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DINING
How does faux foie gras taste? Our critic knows
Spiaggia, Tru rise to the creative challenge

By Phil Vettel
Tribune restaurant critic
Published September 21, 2006

I never thought I'd be saying this, but let's hear it for Joe Moore!

Were it not for the good alderman's sponsorship of the highly controversial foie-gras ban (still the law in Chicago as of this writing), two outstanding contributions to gastronomy might never have been invented.

Taking the ban as a personal challenge, four-star restaurants Spiaggia and Tru have come up with substitute dishes that, in distinctly different ways, echo the rich indulgence that characterizes the forbidden foie (which is made from the engorged livers of ducks and, less commonly, geese).

So naturally, I had to sample them. Line of duty and all that. So we purchased two samples (which Tru and Spiaggia were nice enough to deliver and set up) and tested them side-by-side in a state-of-the-art, um, cubicle.

At Spiaggia, the unwieldy title terrina de fagato grasso vegetariano is chef Tony Mantuano's molto Italiano way of saying "vegetarian foie-gras terrine." As the name suggests, no animals were harmed in the preparation of this dish; indeed, no animals were even mildly inconvenienced, except perhaps for the cow that gave the milk that made the butter.

At first glance it looks like a vague blob of pure duck fat, right town to the yellowish tinge, but it tastes considerably lighter, soft in the mouth but with a fine-grain texture in the finish. It tastes like liver, and though it lacks the characteristic foie-gras intensity, it's undeniably rich and indulgent.

"It's made with ceci beans, which are garbanzos," says Mantuano, "with caramelized onions, vin santo, butter and some other things I'm not going to tell you."

The inspiration, Mantuano says, came from a dish he ate in Milan 10 years ago. "It was a vegetarian foie-gras dish, and they called it such," he says. "I remembered about three of the ingredients, and described it to Effy [sous chef Efrain Medrano]. The next day he sat it down in front of me, I tasted it and it was pretty darn close. Amazing, really."

And now the dish, flanked by sliced figs and dribbles of balsamico alongside a plate of oven-toasted fruit bread, is part of Spiaggia's $135, seven-course tasting. "It's actually an amuse that's not listed on the menu," says Mantuano. "We do offer it a la carte for $17."

The interesting thing about the "Faux Gras," a $16 dish served at Tru, is that chef/partner Rick Tramonto didn't particularly want to develop it.

"I pushed back on this big time," he says. "When the ban came down, I didn't want to deal with it; I was just going to forget that foie gras ever existed. But Laurent [famed chef Laurent Gras, with whom Tramonto has partnered in the past] and I went back and forth, and this is the dish we came up with. But it's really Laurent's dish; I was the pooh-poohing American."

Tru's "Faux Gras" looks very much like the real thing, at least to those familiar with foie-gras torchon (in which the liver is salt-cured and poached to a uniformly smooth texture). That's because it's made of sauteed chicken livers and rendered pork fat ("like a chicken liver mousse with way more fat," Tramonto says). It's dusted with a little cocoa (which mimics some of the vein patterns in the real thing) and wrapped in a clear sheet of gelatin, agar-agar and sauternes. A little sprinkling of sea salt finishes the dish.

The result is amazing. The liver's cloudlike texture (without the gelatin binding, it would form a puddle) is creamy where foie gras is more dense, but the deep and rich flavor is spot on, right down to the almost-metallic aftertaste. The gelatin coating (don't even think of discarding that part) gives the Faux Gras the slow, melt-in-mouth sensation that the best torchons provide.

Served with dehydrated plums, peppery baby arugula and dots of cocoa oil, the dish looks as indulgent as it tastes.

In sum, if you're looking for a fat-liver fix that's so close to the real thing that it almost doesn't matter that it's imitation, head on over to Tru. But for an eye-opening demonstration that vegetarian eating can be a lot of fun, you've got to try the Spiaggia terrine.

Spiaggia, 980 N. Michigan Ave., 312-280-2750.

Tru, 676 N. St. Clair St., 312-202-0001.

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pvettel@tribune.com

 

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